After the recent speculation surrounding Alex Neil finally coming to an end with him signing a new 3-year contract to keep him at the club until 2022 – Preston have now turned their attention back to the final few games of the season.
The season has flown by and as always has had plenty of ups and downs – but can we consider this season a success and say we have progressed? How do we kick on further next season?
The Same But Different?
In his first season, Neil guided us to a 7th place finish just falling short of the play-offs. This season after the March international break, four back to back defeats all but put our play-off hopes to bed again.
I’ve pulled the tables up from this season vs. last season at the same stage and, there are a few differences:
- Current position of 9th vs. 8th
- 60 points vs. 66 points last season
- Goal difference of +5 vs. +9 last season
2017/18 Championship Table
2018/19 Championship Table
In the final three games of 2017/18 we picked up seven points with a 0-0 draw against Norwich and two wins against Sheffield United and Burton Albion respectively which saw us climb to 7th, two points behind Derby who eventually finished 6th.
Though we can’t at this stage in the season compare this current season to a full season here’s some more figures to give you an idea of how we’re getting on.
- W:19, D:16, L:11
- GF:58, GA:45, GD:+13.
2018/19 Season (to date)
- W:16, D:12, L:15
- GF:64, GA:59, GD:+5.
Our final three games are Wigan (20th), Sheffield Wednesday (11th) and Brentford (15th).
Whilst the two seasons don’t feel miles apart in terms of how they have played out, a lot would feel we have done well to pull ourselves into our current position given how badly we started. We were bottom of the table after the 3-2 defeat to Sheffield United with a goal difference of -9 and only one win to our name and some fans had reached panic stations with the thought of a potential relegation battle looming. Throughout the season we have had the almost ever-present injury list to contend with too which was most notable from October through to December which at a point left the gaffer without nine first-team players.
To then turn it around the way we did between from January to March with a 13 game unbeaten run including a run of 6 consecutive away wins.
It was only after the international break when this good run came to an end and we were all brought crashing back down to earth with the four defeats from four.
Despite last weekend’s disappointing Gentry Day defeat away to West Bromwich Albion, it was announced on Sunday afternoon that Alex Neil had signed a new contract and committed to North End for the next 3 years which certainly helped to lighten the mood of the fans and then bouncing back from the four defeats yesterday with a 4-0 win against an already relegated Ipswich Town. It’s certainly been a much more positive week heading into Monday’s game away at Wigan.
There is one key question, though; have we progressed? There are some who will argue there hasn’t been any real progression as it’s very likely we are going to end up finishing outside the play-off spots again and yes, I do see that point.
At the same time I believe there are areas we have progressed and positive points that we can highlight.
A Young Squad
24.9 – the average age of our squad which is the third-lowest average age in the championship. The young talent we have that is being brought through is great to see. It’s also good to see how we seem to be keeping on with the development of young talent, too.
The likes of Ben Davies, Jordan Storey and Brad Potts really shining this season. Even our now ‘experienced’ regular players like Alan Browne, Ben Pearson and Callum Robinson still being in their early 20s showing how Neil is trusting in youth and as we go into the new season if we can keep hold of the main core of the team it will certainly help us to build a strong foundation in order to progress.
Adding to this, during the ‘injury crisis’ Alex Neil gave Ethan Walker and Adam O’Reilly their first team debuts off the bench which I think will have been great experiences for them. Hopefully, it gives their confidence a boost and we’ll see more of them in the future and possibly even before the end of the season as Adam O’Reilly featured on the bench in yesterday’s game against Ipswich.
So far this season, we currently lie 6th in the table for goals scored with a grand total of 64. I think our goal scoring ability and some of the attacking play has been excellent this season.
The goals have been spread throughout the squad too with both Callum Robinson and Alan Browne hitting double figures for the season. Add to that the fact that Paul Gallagher, Tom Barkhuizen and Daniel Johnson all have 6 each, it’s good to see the goals being spread around.
Additionally, Jayden Stockley has looked bright since his arrival in January with three goals and a lot of fans like how Louis Moult slots into the side and the fact he tends to have an impact when he comes on. Not discounting that we have had struggles up front when the system hasn’t worked for us particularly highlighted when we’ve played with Maguire up front on his own.
Overall mind, our attacking play has been excellent at times and we are comfortably doing better in front of goal than last season.
How Do We Progress?
One of the big questions that is going to be on the lips of many a North End fan come the end of this season will be how we progress further next season?
The goal of promotion from the championship is never going to be easy but there are a number of areas we need to improve on in order to continue progressing.
First of all, we need to retain our best players and bring in some quality new signings – a key point I think everyone will agree on.
Summer is going to be huge for us in keeping our best players in Alan Browne, Ben Davies, and Ben Pearson. It is rumoured that Callum Robinson is going to be on his way to Bournemouth which will be a blow if it transpires but, you would hope that if we manage to keep hold of the others it won’t be a complete disaster, though he’ll certainly be a huge miss.
I think we have a few young players with potential who will benefit from loans out and I think if Neil is backed in the summer, we need to strengthen the defence and the midfield. Also, I think a bit more experience throughout the squad wouldn’t go amiss. It is great to have all the young players in the squad but when you look at Gallagher who has been immense for us both on and off the pitch, it’s clear to see that it’s one thing we don’t have in abundance.
One thing we will never be is the big spenders in the league but as long as Neil is being backed to bring in his first choice signings I think we will get what we need. I’d also like to see Lukas Nmecha come back next season, he has really grown as a player and in the most recent run of games, his ability has shone through. I think if he goes out on loan to a championship club next season he will get more goals as he’s now accustomed to the level and it would be great if that could be with us.
Secondly, our home form has to improve. This season we are currently 13th in the table for home games and that looks a little something like this:
- P22, W8, D9, L5 = 33 points. A 36.4% win ratio.
Last season we also ended up finishing 13th in the table for home games.
- P23, W9, D8, L6 = 35 points. A 39.1% win ratio.
The eight teams above us, with the exception of Middlesbrough and Bristol City, are above us in the home form table and it’s clear to see that this is key if a side is to be amongst promotion contenders. This is undoubtedly an area we need to focus on and improve if we want to be successful.
By comparison in the away table, we are 8th so if our home form had been better you could have certainly argued we would have had a better chance at being in the top 6. Similarly, last season we had more success on the road finishing 3rd in the away table.
All of last season’s top six unsurprisingly finished above us at home. I think it’s a key issue, Deepdale used to be a fortress but now we seem to perform better on the road, which is great, but in order to be a proper top six side you simply can’t be sitting 13th.
Finally, you probably all guessed this one, but our injury and disciplinary records. As has been mentioned our season has been littered with injuries meaning some of our best players have had prolonged periods out on the sidelines with the big one for me being Callum Robinson. Imagine what could have been if he had been fit all season? I suspect he’d be close to being on 20 goals.
I recognise injuries can be unavoidable and aren’t always down to training techniques but with us, I think Neil has mentioned they have addressed a few things to hopefully reduce the injuries and hopefully it does improve into next season as it has hugely exposed the lack of squad depth we have. I know it sounds an obvious point but of course if it can be rectified and if we can reduce the number of players out injured it will be a big boost.
Ben Pearson is a divisive player amongst the North End faithful but no one is doubting his footballing ability and how good he is, however, his discipline needs to improve. Of late he seems to be becoming more of a liability and is missing important games where he’s needed most.
I completely understand the frustration he and Neil may have with him seemingly being targeted by officials and opposition players, but we need to ensure he isn’t out for big portions every season as it costs us dearly.
The Challenges of Making the Top 6
The Championship is one of the best and most competitive leagues in the world however, as we all know, we are yet to reach the goal of promotion to the Premier League. As fans I think we do have elevated expectations in what is an incredibly tough league but what are we really up against?
I’ve tried to summarise some of the main challenges we face in the league and our position.
Huddersfield and Fulham’s relegations from the Premier League has already been confirmed, and at the time of writing Cardiff occupy the final relegation spot. The three relegated clubs will receive a reported £42m in their first season back in the Championship to cushion the blow.
This, alongside the previously relegated clubs from the Premier League in West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City, Swansea City, Hull City and Middlesbrough, all of whom receive parachute payments and will do up until their third season at this level following relegation from the Premier League. Parachute payments have vastly distorted the league from a financial point of view and has created a trend for these clubs to significantly increase spending in order to try and make a quick return to the top flight.
This is the kind of spending that we simply cannot compete with. The introduction of the Financial Fair Play rules are starting to come into play and this could potentially stop clubs with unsustainable spending/operating with a recent example being Birmingham and their somewhat lenient 9-point deduction.
As I mentioned in the above point, Birmingham were deducted points but we also saw Derby avoid punishment. The club sold their stadium back to their owner Mel Morris for £80m when it was independently valued at £41m which enabled them to report a profit of £14.6m and be on the right side of FFP.
This is certainly a challenge as clubs will be looking for ways to find these loopholes that they can use to prevent punishments which does nothing to help clubs like us as it arguably contributes towards creating an unlevel playing field.
The TV revenue in the EFL is a lot less than the Premier League and we are by no means a Sky favourite and have only been featured on TV three times during this season compared to Leeds United and Derby County who appeared substantially more. Its reported clubs receive £100,000 for home games on Sky with visiting sides awarded £10,000 for the game. This again goes towards creating that unlevel playing field I mentioned, with the bigger and more ‘attractive’ sides receiving more TV revenue than the likes of Preston and other clubs who do not pull in the bigger viewing audiences.
Saying that, the clubs that are featured more don’t seem to be big fans of being on the box so often. It was mentioned at the recent Preston North End fans’ forum that the likes of Leeds United have been openly unapproving about the way the TV games are scheduled with Ridsdale joking that he offered to take some of the games off their hands.
Quality of Opposition & Coaching
This season we went from a potential relegation fight to harbouring hopes of a play-off place. It’s a fast-paced league where things can quickly change with a run of results. There are a number of quality sides that will miss out on promotion and when you add to the relegated sides from the Premier League, it’s certainly going to make for an incredibly strong league next season with a lot of quality.
The level of coaching, in particular, highlighted by ‘El Loco’, Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United and the German, Daniel Farke at Norwich, has shown the level of intricate detail which goes into Championship team’s analysis which makes the quality of opposition and games incredibly high.
There are lots of younger upcoming managers doing well in this league, too with our very own Alex Neil being one of those so and Lee Johnson another who is doing incredible at Bristol City so, overall, the standard is high.
As alluded to earlier, a recurring issue for Preston has been how injuries have had a big impact on our season due to the lack of real depth we have in the squad. The bigger teams in the championship who are able to invest vast amounts don’t have this issue with larger squads with some having 18-20 quality players, it allows them to more easily rotate, whereas ours is limited and you can see the struggle when important players are out.
Again, this makes it a big challenge for us to compete at the highest level in every game, when there are big differences throughout the championship in squad sizes.
As a league it’s constantly getting better and better which makes the goal of promotion harder and harder, particularly for a club like North End. So, by no means has this season been a disaster considering the poor start and with all the various challenges we have faced.
I think we have a good manager and a group of players who all seem hungry for success. I was one who thought Neil was gone so I’m very glad that he eventually signed on. It shows intent from the club and I hope any assurances he has had are followed through with in order to help us with the goal of top six next season.
Of course, while there is little to play for at the end of this season we’ll want to finish on a high and a win away at Brentford will send the North End faithful off into the summer months with perhaps some optimism ahead of what could be a huge, huge season for us in 2019/20.